AP Spanish students are no substitute for professional interpreters

When a group of Advanced Placement (AP) Spanish students in Martha’s Vineyard stepped in to act as impromptu interpreters for non-English-speaking migrants last week, mainstream media outlets presented it as a touching, good Samaritan-esque detail in part of a larger, more unsettling story.

However, professional interpreters and others working in language services raised a couple of eyebrows at the detail. 

That’s because while the students and their teacher’s efforts may have been well-intentioned, experts (and the law) generally agree that bilingual minors are not an adequate replacement for professional interpreters, except in urgent emergency situations. Moreover, the curriculum for AP Spanish, which the College Board designed to emulate a first-year university-level Spanish course, does not include any specialized training on interpreting skills.

Last week, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis sent two planes of immigrants, who had been living in the state without legal permission, to Martha’s Vineyard. An official in his administration later confirmed that this move was part of the state’s program to relocate “illegal immigrants to sanctuary destinations.” The migrants, who were mostly, if not all, from Venezuela, arrived on the Massachusetts island on Wednesday, unaware of where they’d been transported.

When news of the migrants’ arrival broke, several locals in the community volunteered to help them — according to the Cape Cod Times retelling of the events, high school students in an AP Spanish class arrived with their teacher at a local church coordinating volunteer services to provide translation and interpretation for the newly arrived migrants.

Interpreters often stress the fact that good language skills alone do not necessarily make a good interpreter. Other skills, such as cultural competence and strong working memory, are also important factors — among many others — to being able to provide adequate interpreting services. At least one interpreter posting about the situation on social media noted that the high school students are also at risk for experiencing vicarious trauma, given the strenuous and extremely dangerous journey the migrants embarked on to reach the United States.

And while the students may have been capable of speaking Spanish at or above the level of a first-year college student, it’s likely that their linguistic skills were below the level necessary to serve as interpreters in the first place.

The island is, however, less than three hours away from metropolises like Boston and Providence, where Spanish speakers (and interpreters) are abundant — the local church coordinating volunteer efforts probably had the means to pay professional interpreters to come to the island to provide better language services than the students were able to offer. 

The Massachusetts governor’s office said in a statement that the migrants would have access to professional language services at Joint Base Cape Cod, where they’re being relocated once again.

Given the quick-moving and unexpected nature of the situation — reports note that Florida officials did not forewarn Martha’s Vineyard locals of the migrants’ pending arrival beforehand — and the low number of Spanish speakers residing in the area, it’s not entirely surprising that the area was underprepared to provide adequate language services in the immediate response to the migrants’ arrival. The uncritical discussion of this episode in the mainstream media does, however, underscore a general lack of awareness as to what proper language access looks like.

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Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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